in Features | 13 SEP 05
Featured in
Issue 93

Wade Guyton

New Forms of Modernism; ambivalence and ambiguity; 'an act of processing'

in Features | 13 SEP 05

‘Tradition … involves, in the first place, the historical sense … a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.’
T.S. Eliot ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, 1922

With its citations from the history of Modernism, the pastness of the past is as much apparent in Wade Guyton’s work as the past’s continued presence re-articulated with an awareness of the critical strategies of Postmodernism. Guyton’s Untitled Action Sculpture (Breuer) (2005) could be seen as an emblematic sculpture. The tubular steel frame of a Marcel Breuer chair is partially un-bent and stretched out to form a tall free-standing abstract sculpture. Enough of is distinctive original shape remains for it to still be recognizable, but its new form implies a random indeterminacy at odds with the structural utilitarianism of its origins. The Modernist fetish object is translated into an essentially useless art object that points towards a tradition of abstraction, but its abstract convictions are troubled by its culturally loaded source material. Its meaning is determinedly open-ended and Guyton’s relation to his source remains ambiguous. The iconic object is neither celebrated nor wholly desecrated; the significance of the original remains clear while the deconstructive gesture seems rather to explore the limitations of transformation within the individual’s reach.

Guyton’s ongoing series of ‘printer drawings’ enact a similar type of low-key intrusion into the graphic evidence of Modernist history. Pages from books showing (mostly) black and white reproductions of key Modernist art works, or sometimes timber-frame houses, are fed through a home-office ink jet printer and marked with thick black or red marks, drawn up on a word document. A black rectangle blots out half of a Moholy-Nagy construction; a group of smudged black circles disturb the pleasing geometry of a Kenneth Noland painting; a ‘U’ blown up to an exaggerated scale straddles another image. The overwhelming impulse is to recognize the ‘true’ picture beneath the clumsy surrogate geometries superimposed on it; the tradition beneath the contemporary doodlings. As with the Breuer chair, Guyton leaves this possibility open, merely encumbering his images with traces of more recent artistic activity. While these drawings could be read as refelctions on the soft geometry of word processing and photoshop versus the hardline conceptual geometries of Modernism, or of the readily available technological means of home reproduction versus the limited possibilities of photographic reproduction that first appeared in art books in the mid 20th century, such easy dichotomies are weakened by the ambiguity, and apparent randomness, of the final images. They do not imply a superceding of the past but rather lay it out to suggest its contiguous ‘presence’ and ‘pastness’, as well as the complexities facing a young artist in confronting it. As Eliot first put it, and the rest of the century confirmed, ‘no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.’

Ambivalence is a central characteristic of Guyton’s work. He makes a point of choosing pages at random to over-print, or signs with no singular meaning, and is at pains to avoid an easy elegance. As a result, there is nothing simple or neat about his works and rather a sense of endgame whereby narrative is alluded to but not concluded. It is partially obscured but thereby all the more present, as John Baldessari described it: ‘the point is – the return of the repressed. The more you try to blot it out, the more its going to be there.’ But his relation to the sources he chooses remains open-ended, confused by the apparent lack of intention of his creative decision-making. A circular process ensues of self-conscious citation overlaid with unsophisticated sign-making, where formal decisions are handed over to the rather less than perfect technology of the ink-jet printer, and ensuing smears, blots and misalignments are absorbed into the final design. Arranged in series between panes of glass in heavy wooden frames, the narrative codes of the art books as much as the textual codes of the computer-printer process are broken and the works stutter in dumb looping repetition. The effect is somewhat like Richard Prince’s joke paintings, bad jokes repeated and repeated until the words themselves seem alienated and meaningless, and humour gives way to an aching melancholy. But Guyton has described his works as ‘an act of processing’, not ‘negation’ which results in ‘stasis’ rather than nihilism; the stasis of tradition perhaps where the past is absorbed by the present as much as the present is determined by the past.